(Netflix Streaming, September 2017) By now, the zombie genre has been declared creatively dead so often that’s become a cliché to be amazed at how filmmakers are still finding new things to do with it. But there’s no underestimating creative ingeniousness, and so we end up with movies such as Busanhaeng, a South Korean zombie movie that manages to find one or two new things to say about the zombie apocalypse. The first of these is the South Korean setting—for most North American viewers, it’s a source of just-enough exoticism, while based in a recognizable first-world society. Much of the social and emotional cues are recognizable as-is, although the lack of guns does bring a further element of tension to the proceedings that, in an American setting, would be settled with far more expended rounds. (In fact, by the time guns show up late in Busanhaeng, they’re presented as direct treats to our surviving characters.) The second and most distinctive feature of the movie is its immediate setting, aboard a train leaving a zombie-infested Seoul to a possibly-safe Busan, a cross-country trip just long enough to be dramatically interesting. The train becomes simultaneously a haven and a source of danger, as it moves through a countryside that is not safe, but contains contaminated cars that end up separating our protagonists. Most of the characters are generic, but the film is handled efficiently enough that it’s easy to get into even the most familiar situations. Gong Yoo is sympathetic enough as the lead, but Ma Dong-seok earns a lot of attention as a bruiser. Some of the later sequences are spectacular in depicting long sustained shots of zombies trying to outrun the characters in a train yard, but Busanhaeng is generally better in its first half as the situations haven’t yet resolved themselves to more familiar plot beats. Still, it’s a refreshing-enough take on a standard story, and it will reward viewers looking for something slightly different.
(On Cable TV, September 2017) What a movie. What a terrific movie. While Gone with the Wind surely ranks way up the list of overexposed films (it’s still the highest-grossing film in history when adjusted for inflation—nearly everyone saw it back then), there’s a reason why it still works nearly eighty years later, even with its three-hour-plus duration, even as it expresses warm feelings toward historically repellent issues. There are a lot of ways to see the movie (as an epic family drama, as a romance, as a historical film) but I found it most effective as a character piece tracking the evolution of a young woman into a hardened life-scarred survivor. Vivien Leigh stars as the legendary Scarlett O’Hara, growing up through civil war and reconstruction from a flighty heiress to the mistress of a domain, a grieving mother and someone who will never be able to live with the love of her life. (It’s significant that Rhett Butler, her counterpart played by Clark Gable, also looms large as an oversized character, but does not significantly evolve during much of the film.) The lavish production values of the film as still amazing today, whether it’s the vivid colours (wow, those dresses), the burning of Atlanta or, more strikingly, the hideous open-air hospital scenes with what looks like thousands of extras—in high definition, the movie still amazes through its sheer visual density. As a sumptuous historical recreation, Gone with the Wind is an amazing time capsule from the thirties looking back at the eighteen-sixties—just consider that the film is now significantly closer to the American Civil War than to today. Alas, this proximity leads to a few unfortunate consequences—at times, modern viewers will feel some revulsion at the way the film excuses or regrets the Confederacy and the systemic use of slavery as an economic system. This also ties with the representation of black characters in the film—ludicrous today, but groundbreaking at the time (leading to the first-ever Academy Award given to a black actor, Hattie McDaniel). But a film doesn’t last nearly eighty years without reflecting its own era, and Gone With the Wind has endured far better than most movies of its time.
(Amazon Prime Streaming, September 2017) Most movie misanthropes are simply eccentric people who just need a little bit of love and compassion before they become whole again. But not the protagonist of Manchester by the Sea, a haunted man who would rather work in a menial job and avoid human contact (including advances from attractive clients) due to an unspecified trauma in his past. But as his brother dies and he’s forced to take responsibility for his nephew, the nature of his past becomes more obvious, and his all-consuming guilt explained. Casey Affleck has never been the most sympathetic of actors, and he’s just about perfect in this movie as he plays a character going through life through motions, not quite believing that he deserves to live. (The flashback that explains his all-consuming grief has a spectacular suicide attempt, for reasons entirely comprehensible to the audience.) Having lost it all, he doesn’t believe that he deserves it back, and the ending only offers a very brief glimmer of flickering hope. From the above description, you’d think that Manchester by the Sea was an unrelenting assault of gloom, but one of the savviest ironies of this well-controlled film is the bleak dark humour that permeates it, making it feel far more interesting than a pure drama would have been. Writer/director Kenneth Lonergan has put together something unexpectedly interesting considering the dark subject matter, and it’s as sure an instant Oscar contender as you can imagine.
(On TV, September 2017) There are a few reasons to go back to Say Anything … and they’re not strictly limited to this being one of John Cusack’s first big role, or that this is Cameron Crowe’s first movie as a writer/director. Even today, Say Anything does have an off-beat quality that distinguishes it from so many other teen romance movies. Most of the characters defy easy characterizations (indeed, one of the film’s strengths is in undermining the stereotypes it starts with, all the way to an incarceration that feels wildly daring for a movie of this type), the dialogues are witty and the conclusion ends, as it is, in mid-air without being unsatisfying. Cusack’s charm is apparent even at a young age, while Ione Skye distinguishes herself as a teenage heroine and John Mahoney handles a difficult role fairly well. Surprisingly enough, the iconic boombox moment is a fleeting scene without much pomp associated with it. Decently comparable to the slew of John Hughes high school romantic comedies, Say Anything may not be a perfect examples of the form, but it’s readily watchable even today, and it still feels somewhat more sophisticated than many of its contemporaries.
(On TV, September 2017) Nowadays, it’s not particularly difficult to make feminist-themed historical movies. Being a woman has seldom been easy in recorded history, and it doesn’t take much highlighting to make the point that it was even worse not too long ago. So it is that The Duchess, even fancifully adapted from historical events, doesn’t have to reach in order to present a credibly oppressed heroine. The plot summary does read like a melodrama: An 18th-century young English woman stuck in an arranged marriage, pressured to produce a male heir, sidelined by her husband’s affair with her friend (herself pressured by having been taken away from her sons), embarking on an affair of her own … and so on. A nudge too far would have sent the film in X-rated territory, especially given how little consent there is all around. While the summary reads like a wild ride, it’s considerably dampened by a running time that feels too long even under two hours, considering the tepid pacing and highly mannered costume drama. At least there’s the acting to admire along the way: Kiera Knightley turns in a serious performance, while Ralph Fiennes has seldom been so detestable and Hayley Atwell distinguishes herself with a difficult character. The visual look of the film is as good as period dramas get, and the Oscar-nominated costumes are indeed pretty good. This being said, The Duchess does feel like an intensely familiar story—from The Other Boyleen Girl to Anna Karenina to Belle to a chunk of the Jane Austen adaptations, there is a lot of similar material out there and if it happens to scratch an itch, then hurrah. Otherwise, it’s a long film with familiar plot points, reasonably entertaining but not essential.
(On Cable TV, September 2017) The Resident Evil series has been a mixed bag of inconsistent results, so it’s perhaps no surprise to find out that what is billed as a final instalment would be so uneven. Resident Evil: The Final Chapter starts on a sour note, as the big-scale Washington, DC, battle promised by the previous instalment is completely avoided, with an inferior opening action sequence setting low expectations. Much of the first and second acts are a moving post-apocalyptic mixture of road rage and zombie action, seldom reaching the lunacy that marked the series’ best moments. Iain Glen does bring a bit of gravitas to the instalment, just in time for the film’s most interesting third act, which sees the action go back to The Hive where the series began. The fan-favourite laser corridor makes a return appearance (although it’s absurdly easy to defeat when the panels are smashed) and it all leads to a competent set-piece between super-powered characters before a conclusion of sort is offered, finalizing series lead Alice’s role in the entire shenanigans. (Milla Jovovich gives it all she can, but the most interesting thing here is how visibly she has aged in the fifteen years between the first and last movies of the series.) As an announced conclusion, it does carry a not-entirely-unearned weight—unfortunately, it can’t meet those expectations. While there are a few good moments here and there, The Final Chapter remains a disappointment for not following up on the previous volume, for not fully giving satisfying endings to the series’ recurring characters and for settling for a fairly obvious conclusion. Even on a strictly visual level, director Paul W.S. Anderson turns in a routine film, without any of the visual flair he’s proven able to accomplish, even in the previous volume of the series. Much more would have been possible. With this lukewarm conclusion, it almost goes without saying that you’d better be a fan of the series before watching The Final Chapter—there’s little here, either in plotting or execution, to make it interesting if you’re not already invested in knowing how it will turn out.
(Second viewing, On DVD, September 2017) While Smokey and the Bandit II is a noticeable step down from the first film, I find it fascinating to see that I remembered more of it from boyhood memories than the first film (specifically the end stunt sequences). As a grown-up, there’s almost no limit to the ways this sequel is worse than the original: The set-up makes no sense, the film sabotages itself in ensuring that it revisits the same dynamics from the first film, the irritation caused by Jackie Gleason’s character is magnified (and multiplied by the indulgent use of Dom Deluise) and the whole elephant plot device slows down what should have been a pedal-to-the-metal action comedy. The one thing that the sequel does better than the first is the final demolition derby: While none of the stunts make sense from a story perspective, it’s a special kind of fun to see director/stuntman Hal Needham go crazy with a hundred police cars ready to be scrapped and just film whatever metal-tearing silliness his team can conjure. Otherwise, it’s another excuse to see Burt Reynolds effortlessly charm audiences (although he first has to dig himself out of a contrived pit of overacted despair) and while his banter with Sally Field isn’t as strong this time around, there’s still a little bit of what was so special in the first movie. Otherwise, most reviewers since the film’s release have gotten it right: this is a pure cash grab of a sequel, unnecessary and not particularly well executed. If you’re out of time, just skip to the last twenty minutes or so to see the stunts.
(Second Viewing, On DVD, September 2017) I distinctly remember seeing Smokey and the Bandit when I was a boy, but other than a few curious moments of recognition or anticipation on this second viewing, I had forgotten nearly every detail of the film. Much of it isn’t too complicated, dealing with a cross-state beer run enlivened by a vengeful sheriff tracking down the woman who left his son at the altar. The transport truck moving the beer west isn’t nearly as interesting as the black Trans-Am (driven by Burt Reynolds, no less) running interference by attracting as much attraction as speedily as possible. Elements of the premise, these days, can benefit from historical annotations: That Coors wasn’t sold east of Oklahoma; that it spoiled within days due to lack of preservatives; and the various intricacies of police jurisdiction. But little of the technicalities matter when the point of Smokey and the Bandit is to stage stunt sequences, riff of Reynolds’s charm (less potent today—see the need for annotations—but still effective), feature Sally Field in a rather comic role and generally have fun sticking it to The Man. It’s really not subtle—Jerry Reed’s insanely catchy song “East bound and down” essentially acts as a Greek Chorus explaining the main points of the movie. Otherwise, Jackie Gleason’s antagonist is a pure caricature that starts grating early and never becomes more sympathetic. There’s some sweet comedy in the way the “legend” of the Bandit seems universal in the film’s universe, reaching minor characters via CB radio (a technology essential to the film’s atmosphere) and making them react in extraordinary ways to facilitate their progress. The stunts are fine as could be expected from stuntman-turned-director Hal Needham, the banter between Reynolds and Field is occasionally great, but it’s Smokey and the Bandit’s general atmosphere that remains compelling today, even if often on an anthropological level.
(On Cable TV, September 2017) I suppose it was only a matter of time before the Marquis de Sade became a romantic figure for our so-called enlightened age, portrayed as fighting the true monsters of social righteousness. Yeah … have they even tried reading de Sade’s stuff? Of course, having Geoffrey Rush in the lead role helps a lot in making de Sade’s sympathetic … and measuring him to even-worse antagonists is just stacking the deck unfairly. At its best, Quills is a meditation on freedom of speech, and how obscenity (from a writer) isn’t quite as bad as outright demonstrated sadism (from his jailers). It’s generally OK at portraying this point, although I really was not pleased with the death of a character during the film’s third act—it seemed cruel even in a film built around cruelty. Executed with some competence, it does celebrate the written word no matter its medium or intent and as such gets some mild built-in interest. Still, it’s Rush’s performance that’s most interesting here, and director Philip Kaufman’s handling of difficult material that becomes efficient to the point of invisibility. Quills is really not supposed to be historically accurate, so any criticism in this direction becomes relatively moot. Fans of Jasper Fforde’s fantasy novels will be happy to see his name in the end credits—before becoming a best-selling author, Fforde was a film crewmember and he worked on movies such as Quills.
(On Cable TV, September 2017) I have no fondness whatsoever for the home-invasion subgenre, in which randomly self-proclaimed psychopaths invade a house of innocent people and proceed to at least try to slaughter nearly everyone. The family often fights back, but there’s no telling how complete the body count will go. The Last House on the Left is one of those low-imagination, high-gore horror movies that really don’t bring anything new to the table … even considering that this is a remake. Seemingly trying everything possible in order to be repellent to viewers, it also hinges on an extended rape sequence, irremediable villains and a last shot that ramps up the gore to ludicrous levels just in order to be able to please the gorehounds in the audience. In-between, there’s not a lot to say: If there’s an intellectual subtext to, say, seeing good people answer violence by violence, then it’s nearly undetectable underneath the lavish attention spent on the horrors of the surface. It’s almost interesting to see actors with mild-mannered personas such as Tony Goldwyn and Monica Potter turn homicidal as threatened parents, but really the movie itself isn’t special. The Last House on the Left certainly doesn’t manage to break out of its genre strictures to appeal to audiences who don’t like the essential premise of that sub-genre.
(Netflix Streaming, September 2017) Somewhere in my notional Critic’s Lexicon, there’s an entry for “spotlight rot,” or the tendency for genre work to curdle in appreciation when brought to a wider audience. This phenomenon is most visible during award season, as larger and more generalist viewers take a look at nominated works. What was, up to then, a critical darling of a small group of nominators can wither when considered from audiences who may not be initially sympathetic to the work’s goals and shared assumptions. So it is that Moonlight is, without a doubt, a rather good intimate drama depicting the journey of a young black man as he confronts his homosexuality in an environment that isn’t welcoming to his nature. It’s a film shot with skill by writer/director Barry Jenkins, structured unusually enough to beg attention and blessed with impressive performances by Mahershala Ali, Naomie Harris and Janelle Monáe (who’s good and lucky enough to be in two Oscar-nominated movies this year). But taken out of that context, lauded as one of the year’s best picture and seen from another perspective, however … it does feel rather dull. Matter-of-fact. Imperfect. The rigid three-act structure elides a lot of details and forces the rest in a small window. (Confining Mahershala Ali’s performance to the first act seems like a wasted opportunity.) The small budget of the film quickly shows its limits. And the point here isn’t that Moonlight is a lesser film—after all, it memorably won the Best Picture Oscar in one of the institution’s most unbelievable presentation screw-up. But the spotlight that the film gets as !!BEST PICTURE OF THE YEAR!! almost diminishes what it manages to accomplish with very little at its disposal. Time will tell if the film ages well … but it’s very possible that future film critics will wonder why it outclassed La-La Land and other contenders … and then we’ll have to explain #oscarssowhite … and maybe Trump. Sometimes, even small movies get swept up in big movements.
(On DVD, September 2017) Every so often, Tom Cruise’s superstar stature and kooky personal peculiarities can make everyone forget that he can act. Fortunately, there are plenty of counterexamples throughout his career, few as hard-hitting as his performance in Born on the Fourth of July, as he goes from naïve high-schooler to disillusioned Vietnam veteran. Ably written and directed by Oliver Stone, this is a film that, in many ways, stands as a definitive statement on the experience of many Vietnam veterans—lured into service by idealism, wounded in combat, ostracized by American society. It’s not an easy film to watch, but Cruise is really good in the lead role and the movie acts as a witness to an inglorious period in American history that shouldn’t be forgotten. It’s a long movie, but then again it spans more than a decade in a young man’s life, and part of Cruise’s challenge is to portray both a naïve high-schooler and a grizzled veteran. Willem Defoe also shows up in a pivotal role. Born on the Fourth of July acts as a spiritual sequel of sorts to Platoon, and definitely ranks in the upper third of Stone movies.
(Netflix Streaming, September 2017) At some point, someone will need to sit down with Mel Gibson and ask if he’s all right, because most of his movies as a director include unnecessary gore to a level that approaches ridiculousness. Hacksaw Ridge is no exception, but it feels even more ridiculous given how dissonant the film gets once it heads to war. The first half of the film is easily the most interesting, as a young man (Andrew Garfield, effortlessly likable) enlists but refuses to take up arms due to religious beliefs. The army doesn’t take his conscientious objection very well, and the action soon moves to the courtroom as our protagonist defends his right not to bear arms in the service of the nation. There’s a conventional romance, but the angle through which Gibson explores national service is interesting. Then we head over to the front and Hacksaw Ridge becomes an entirely different animal. As combat rages on, soldiers are killed in increasingly gruesome ways only made possible by CGI and our protagonist must continue to operate in this hellish environment. If viewers had been worried they wouldn’t get war sequences after a pacific start, those worries are soon put to rest by a Grand Guignol carnival of exploding heads and severed limbs. Some viewers may want to tune out, not just because of the gore, but mostly because the film pretty much loses any dramatic interest from that point on. There will be bullets. There will be heroic sacrifices. There will be redemption for a protagonist regarded as unreliable by his fellow soldiers. It plays out almost exactly as anticipated, although the visuals are indeed nightmarish enough. Uneven in its approaches, Hacksaw Ridge undeniably has some interest, but it is needlessly graphic in its portrayal of violence.
(In theatres, September 2017) In some ways, The Lego Ninjago Movie is the movie we feared when we heard about The Lego Movie or The Lego Batman Movie: nothing more than an advertisement for the toy brand, competently executed but somewhat hollow. The Lego Movie turned out otherwise, by being superlatively funny and by using Lego bricks to poke at some philosophical truths. The Lego Batman Movie also turned otherwise, by deconstructing the Batman character in a surprisingly wholesome fashion. The Lego Ninjago Movie, alas, is far more restrained in its ambitions: It’s a straight-up adventure film featuring high schoolers defending a city against a relentless supervillain that happens to be the father of one of them. The film’s standout sequence is a vertiginous depiction of an attack on Ninjago City—pushing computer animation to the limits of what virtual Lego bricks can do, it’s the kind of action highlight that plays like the best play fantasies of eight-year-old boys everywhere. From a visual perspective, there’s also an interesting blend of Lego models blended with attempts at recreating the real world via CGI, as if a kid was playing in his backyard with brick-built models. Otherwise, The Lego Ninjago Movie is far more ordinary—while it’s charming enough to create smiles and a moderate engagement toward the characters, its emotional arc is very familiar, and it seems to hold back on much of the wild comedy that made such a hit out of its predecessors. As an Adult Fan of Lego, I have to admit that the Lego sets sold by the movie are quite nice—I wouldn’t mind building Ninjago City itself. I’m still glad I saw The Lego Ninjago Movie, I’m still happy it exists, but given that I’d like a long series of excellent Lego movies, I fear that this first misstep may scale back the ambition of future instalments.
(On Cable TV, September 2017) I’m glad I saw Rumble Fish shortly after The Outsiders. Those two movies will forever remain a curio pairing of teenage dramas made back-to-back by writer/director Francis Ford Coppola, with much of the same cast and crew. But while they share themes and settings, they couldn’t be more different in execution, as The Outsiders plays everything straight, while Rumble Fish allows itself fanciful impressionistic segments that truly set it apart from the genre to which it belongs. From splashes of colour in an otherwise black-and-white film, to literate references, a very stylized fight, an out-of-body experience, unnatural skies and a noir aesthetics borrowed from German expressionism. The plot is almost inconsequential to the various moviemaking flourishes, but there’s still a heartfelt brother-to-brother relationship at the heart of it all. All of this being said, I still can’t quite commit to liking the film. On the other hand, I found it far more interesting than The Outsiders, and I’m far more likely to revisit Rumble Fish in a few years than most of the more ordinary films of its period.